Ethics in B2B Digital Personalization – Is it Possible?

If you haven’t had the opportunity to watch the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” yet, I highly recommend it. The rather dark story it tells is fascinating in terms of what our major social media and search platforms are capable of, especially in a time of a major political election and extreme social unrest. The film purports that the capabilities of these platforms are being used to drive digital addiction and even intentionally manipulate users’ thoughts and actions. But the real question posed is whether or not these platforms were originally conceived of with manipulative intent.

Thinking back just ten or fifteen years ago, weren’t Google, Facebook and others positioned as free products? These products were supposedly created to help us be more efficient and to foster a sense of community. And we all remember wondering…..but how will they make money? I personally remember thinking the business model didn’t make sense, and as a marketer focused on B2B, I struggled to make the connection between the seemingly selfless intent of the platforms and the needs or desires of my clients.  Fast forward to 2020 and it’s clear they are each now vast marketplaces not to mention some of the wealthiest and most influential companies in the world. To pull a direct quote from the movie….”If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.” As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but picture the entire human race as targeted victims, allowing algorithms to dictate our political and social beliefs as well as our buying preferences and actions.

As a veteran B2B marketer, I found myself continually trying to translate what the film was telling me into what I do for a living. I mean let’s be honest, in the B2B marketing world isn’t everything we do to influence buyers’ actions…actions to purchase our client’s product or solution? My entire career, even before email marketing had come to fruition much less the current digital age, was about using data to personalize the buyer experience for a better outcome. I’ve written dissertations on the value of “database marketing” and “personalization”. And who can forget when we first gained the ability to slug in a buyer’s first name in the greeting of a direct mail piece? It was like magic for marketers.

For a brief few minutes during and after watching the film, I questioned myself. Not just on a personal level but also on a professional level. Should I delete all my social media accounts and clear my cookies on a daily basis? In my work life, have I too become one of those evil algorithms looking to manipulate buyers just to make a profit?

It didn’t take me long to come back to reality. As B2B marketers, we don’t need to question ourselves, our businesses or our purpose. Instead we need to focus on the good outcomes that our marketing technologies – and the personalization it allows for – bring to bear and on maintaining that goodness. After all, what is the alternative? The alternative is digital interactions that relay no knowledge of our buyers and/or their needs. This does both sides a dis-service. This is how we end up in a state of random acts of marketing, with interruptive outbound messages that create friction along the buyer journey. Instead, think of marketing as building digital relationships with our buyers. We should approach this the same way we would a personal relationship – by listening, gathering data, and engaging in a value-added fashion.

So how do we do this in a moral, non-creepy, non-invasive way? Let’s first start with an accurate definition of personalization. What is it (and what should it be) in a B2B world? I like to think of personalization as content-led demand (or as an orchestrated customer journey that aims to provide pipeline lift).  We “personalize” by using the right content, targeted to the right buyer, and at the right time in their buying journey to influence demand. We determine what the right audience, content and timing is by capturing data about our buyers and using that data to automatically serve up relevant messages to delight our audience. That might sound challenging but it’s really very clear-cut. Let’s break it down:

Keys to Conducting Content-Led Demand and Orchestrating the Customer Journey

Understand your buyers

Although B2B buyers are human beings just like B2C or consumer buyers, marketing in a B2B world is far more complex. More often than not, we’re selling to a committee of buyers. Understanding who is involved in that decision-making process is the first part of the process. Who are the true decision-makers? What are their pain points? Where do they go for content? Only by understanding the answers to these questions will you be able to properly target the right buyers with relevant content messages.

Understand your buyer’s journey(s)

Not all buyers follow the same path. Is the journey for your targeted audience fast/transactional or slow/relational? Odds are it’s not like buying a pair of shoes. It might take months and months of trust-building, internal reviews and approvals. You need to take the time to understand the steps your buyer(s) goes through so that you can – you guessed it – create content that speaks to wherever they are in that journey.

Align content to the segmented buyer journey

Once you’ve gained an understanding of who you should be targeting and you’ve built content that speaks to those targeted segments, you’ll need to make sure you have content that aligns to each step of the journey(s). This allows for you to do implicit scoring on the back-end to determine where someone is in their journey. If your buyer digests content aligned to a later stage of the journey, that’s indicative of him/her being closer to “sales-ready”. If they digest something aligned to an early stage, they’re likely to need more nurturing from marketing before being handed off to Sales. If you’re thinking you need to launch new content check out these four steps we recommend before you start.

Focus on targeted, ‘welcome’ marketing vs. interruptive.

You’re now armed with a good understanding of your audience, their purchasing path, and some great content. You’ll now want to make sure you’re using this to improve the user experience. That means avoiding being interruptive. We have the ability to see via data when someone is interacting and when they’re not. If they stop or slow down, then we as marketers should act accordingly by slowing down our own communications. Remember…it’s not stalking!

Always provide opt-in/permissions

A critical element of B2B marketing best practices is allowing for permissions. Only send emails to those who have explicitly given permission by opting-in. As a consumer we don’t have the same opportunities for doing this whereas in the B2B space, we as marketers have the opportunity to build ‘first person’ engagement. We can capture a prospect’s specific interests and then by honoring that, send highly personalized and relevant content…..thereby building a trusted relationship with our audience.

Do some of these key points sound just like what the documentary was berating social media giants for doing? The answer might be “yes” but with some very important caveats.

When done right, B2B marketing takes an “outside-in” versus “inside-out” and a more strategic than tactical approach. We don’t push our clients’ products and solutions on anyone who will listen. We don’t see a sliver of interest from our prospects and assume they want to be bombarded with similar messages across every possible communication channel. Done right as outlined above, our buyers benefit and everyone wins.

I don’t have all the answers for where social media and search engines will go on the spectrum of privacy, influence and morality in the future. My only opportunity to impact that is to simply put my mobile device down. But in the B2B marketing space, we do have an opportunity to do the right thing for our customers by following these basic principles. I’m up to the challenge, are you?

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